A new island home

Not content to be winter’s plainer cousin, autumn was showing her beauty in Helsinki today with blue skies and earthy colours.

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We enjoyed her show on the island of Seurasaari.  Connected to the mainland by a footbridge, this open-air museum is home to buildings from around Finland from across the ages.

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We’ve been at Christmas and at Midsummer but hadn’t yet visited at this time of year.

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Even though most the buildings are now closed for winter it is still worth a visit for a walk and a picnic and the trails are popular with joggers.

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We enjoyed walking around and choosing which house we would live in (as long as it has good insulation).

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Despite having been before, we found new things to enjoy, including signs of Finnish ingenuity from time gone by.

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Autumn was all around us and as always, nature was left untamed and free to grow.

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We were soon joined by the island’s residents, who I assume are starting to squirrel away stores for the Nordic winter.

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Autumn showed us that she is no shrinking violet – and her display will only get stronger between now and November.

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And we finally found the house we might like to live in – or at least have as our summer home.

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Day Two: Into the woods

Following the deep sleep that comes after sauna and swimming, we woke to Day Two at Hirvijärvi (Moose Lake) and a new range of activities.

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After breakfast, Heikki took us out on the lake in his row boat, something I have not done for years.

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It was a wonderful chance to have a peek at the other houses and cabins that circle the water’s edge.

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A chimney is a sign of a wood-fired sauna, down near the shore.

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Heikki rowed us across to Lemmenkallio (Love Rock) where we climbed for great views of the lake.

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On the way back he told us how he used to row with his grandfather to a nearby farm to buy fresh milk, which they would carry home in aluminium cans.

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Once back at the cabin we decided to venture into the woods, looking for signs of Moose Lake’s namesake.

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It wasn’t long before we came across moose droppings and further on in the soft moss, fresh moose tracks.

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Moose footprint

Moose footprint

The moss was amazing and I still marvel at how the ground cover regenerates each year after the long cold winters.

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The landscape is so different it somehow feels like being on the moon – if the moon was covered in moss – and is spongy to walk on.

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Although we didn’t spot any moose, we were soon joined by the local moose-flies, something that until then we had only ever heard about.

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Like a brown flat house-fly, they are parasitic insects that live on the blood of moose, elk and other bovine animals. Once landed, they shed their wings and burrow into the skin of their host. For humans this means they can be really difficult to remove from your hair and Miko and Jonathan soon donned hair nets to keep them away.

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I had to laugh because as much as I say I love nature, it did become a bit much for this city girl. Although you can take the girl out of the forest, would we be able to take the forest (& its inhabitants) out of us?

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As we left Hirvijärvi to head back to Helsinki, the rain started to fall and we were sorry to leave such an idyllic setting. However we left grateful for such an amazing weekend and the feeling of experiencing something of real Finnish life, flies and all.

Secrets of the summer cottage

Helsinki empties over June and July as Finns escape the city and head to their summer cottages. While we could rent one ourselves, we were really pleased last weekend to spend time with Finnish friends at theirs and get an inside look at this part of Finnish life.

Photo: Heikki Puomilla

Early morning at Hirvijärvi      Photo: Heikki Puomila

About an hour out of Helsinki, we joined Heikki and Anu and their young daughter on the shores of Hirvijärvi (Moose Lake). Heikki has been holidaying here since he was a child as his grandfather built a house in the same spot.

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Although the house has been rebuilt and modern features such as electricity and running water added, the composting toilet is still outside. While I did scare myself with the thought of bears during a midnight visit, it was a huge relief not to have to check for large Australian spiders.

Composting loo

Composting loo

Part of the joy of the weekend was the chance to experience Finnish life outside of the city. After lunch we met with the local community committee, many of whom have been holidaying for generations around the shores of the same lake.

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We were warmly greeted and joined in a game where we tossed 2 euro coins at bottles of wine, with the one landing closest being the winner. In spite of my focus and good technique, I was narrowly beaten by a 12-year old boy.

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On returning to our cottage, the men and kids went fishing off the jetty, catching three small fish with bait made from flour and water.

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Heikki also showed Miko how they identify local butterflies, something his family have an avid and professional interest in.

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After a dinner of hamburgers grilled on the fire, we cooked pancakes down by the outside sauna.

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We each had a turn at flipping the pancakes, which were delicious and served with jam.

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After dinner, it was time for a huge bonfire, a tradition lit to mark the end of summer and the end of the cottage season. Heikki also let off a few fireworks he had leftover from the year before.

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As the sun dropped low in the sky the most incredible full moon rose to take its place. People lit candles out on their jetties as a way to farewell summer, with a small house on an island soon surrounded by flickering lights.

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After the children went to bed, Heikki, Jonathan and I hit the sauna, which is heated by a wood-burning fireplace inside.

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Heikki made a couple of vihta (bunches of birch leaves) and taught us how to beat ourselves and each other with them to really get the blood flowing (we have been doing it far too softly and slowly apparently).

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Each time we got too hot we headed outside to the lake, where we swam by the light of the full moon. At one point there were also huge fireworks going off overhead.

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I really can’t describe just how incredible it was to be swimming at midnight in a lake lit by candles and the moon, with fireworks bursting into bloom above us. While we all know we have another long winter ahead of us, instead of being a sad occasion it was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer.

To follow: Day Two at the summer cottage, where we head onto the lake and into the forest, finding evidence of moose and something to rival Australian spiders..

Of reading and sleeping and boa constrictors

The first time I went to Arkadia International Bookshop I was greeted warmly by the owner, Ian. “Come in, look around, lie down, take a nap,” he said.

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He encouraged me to explore the whole store, starting downstairs, which is below street level. “You’ll find couches with Swiss Army blankets on them,” he said. “Feel free to stretch out and take a nap.”

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With that in mind I did explore the shop, which just got better and better as it went on.

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There’s a huge array of second-hand books, in many different languages.

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Downstairs there are rooms that lead to rooms that lead to other rooms and finally to what Ian calls ‘The Chapel.’

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Here there is a table, set in an alcove and laid with water and glasses for customers to enjoy.

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The rooms are full of boxes of books, which you are encouraged to rifle through.

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If they don’t have it, it probably doesn’t exist, with books apparently available on every subject.

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Upstairs, customers gather and chat, drinking tea from a samovar. Regular events are held that include poetry readings and musical performances.

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I didn’t take that nap but it sure was tempting.

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Until I peeked inside the terrarium and realised I couldn’t see Zefiro anywhere….

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Arkadia International Bookshop

Address:
Nervanderinkatu 11 (view map)
00100 Helsinki, Finland

Opening hours:
Tuesday–Friday 12.00–19.00
Saturday 10.00–18.00
Closed on Mondays and Sundays

Things to do in Helsinki while the sun shines…

Summer has arrived in Helsinki so it’s the perfect time to be out making the most of the city. Being a very seasonal place, what visitors may not realise is that many things will close for winter.

While there are many things to do here over winter, these are the ones you should be sure to do before summer ends….

Hernesaaren ranta

I’m not sure when this beachside mecca will close but I can’t imagine it operating over winter. Part of the magic is you can arrive by boat, so get there before the water freezes. (What it is:  beachside location offering a good range of food & drink, deck chairs, tables & dance floor)

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Linnanmaäki

Even if it’s years since you’ve been, you’ve got to go before it closes for winter. Helsinki’s amusement park has rides for everyone and the view from the Panorama is spectacular. Closing night is usually in October and is worth attending for live music and light shows. (What it is: amusement park with free entry & some free rides)

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On the ferris wheel

On the ferris wheel

Kahvila Tyyni

This cafe at Töölönlahti will stay open as long as the weather stays good, which they hope will be until the end of September. (Many places will close even if the weather is good, because they are bound by licensing restrictions and timetables). So grab a spot in the sun or a stand-up paddle board from the shed next door. (What it is: bayside cafe selling coffee, cold drinks, pastries and sandwiches).

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Visit Pihlajasaari

Just a short boat ride from Helsinki, this island is beautiful to walk around. As well as 1950s changing sheds there are lovely old buildings that are great to photograph. The last ferry from Ruoholahti has run this season but the one from Merisatama goes for two more weeks. Check the JT Line website for details. (What it is: an island with swimming beaches, playgrounds, grills and sauna).

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Skiffer

This island is one my favourite places in summer. The 30-second boat ride will cost you six euro but once on land, the pizza is delicious. It’s also a great place for a drink in the sun and great views back to Helsinki. (What it is: outdoor pizza bar on a small island. Open till mid-late September but they do have a city venue too).

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Terraces

Before the chairs are pulled in and the tables folded make the most of eating & drinking outdoors at the various terraces around the city. Some places, such as Matto Laituri,  close entirely, as all their seating is outdoors. We love Cafe Birgitta to be near the water and if we are in the city, we like to go to M Bar.  (What it is: cafes and bars made entirely of or including large areas of outdoor seating).

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Picnic in Kaivopuisto

Kaivopuisto is beautiful in winter and a great place for sledding. Last year, we even saw a one-horse open sleigh. I couldn’t stop singing Jingle Bells all day. But a picnic last weekend reminded me how beautiful it is in summer. Just look out for squirrels trying to sneak your food. (What it is: a large parkland near the water not far from the city centre).

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Kiosks

Although you can eat ice cream all year round in Finland, the little kiosks that sell coffee and ice cream in the parks will close for winter and it will be BYO. Take advantage of the chance to visit places like Karhupuisto (Bear Park) or Espalanadi for ice cream in the sun. There’s even one that only sells salmiakki (Finnish salty liquorice). (What it is: various kiosks open in summer selling ice cream, coffee, cold drinks).

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Visit the Old Towns of Porvoo (Finland) or Tallinn (Estonia)

You can visit both these places in winter but they are especially lovely in the summer months. Porvoo is one-hour by bus from Helsinki, while Tallinn takes around two hours by ferry. Either way  you can go for lunch and still be home for dinner.

Porvoo

Porvoo

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

There are so many more things to do in Helsinki and some great new opportunities will open up in winter. Just remember that anything to do with cycling, boating or eating outdoors however will soon become harder due to the change in season and opening hours. In the meantime, I feel like I could keep adding to this post but we are heading outdoors ourselves to make the most of summer in the city.

Winter love in late summer

On a recent trip to Malta I felt so happy seeing the wildly spilling bougainvillea and rows of prickly pears.  I had forgotten how much I love being around plants and I had the same feeling yesterday at Helsinki’s Winter Garden.

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It’s funny to visit the Winter Gardens when we are having a lovely late summer, but it was well worth a visit to the stunning glasshouses.

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Built in 1893, the gardens were recently renovated and are home to over 200 plants.

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To my delight there is a room dedicated to succulents and cacti, many of which are currently in bloom.

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I just love these plants, they really make my heart sing. I felt so happy wandering around and would love to have some of them growing at home.

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There is also a display of puppets on at the moment, which gives the place a really magical feel.

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In another wing there are beautiful palms and tables set out where you can sit and read or enjoy a picnic with friends.

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Outside there is a beautiful rose garden with views across Töölönlahti.

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I look forward to returning in winter when Helsinki is no longer so green and keeping warm amongst the plants. There’s enough there to warm even the prickliest of hearts.

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Helsinki’s Winter Gardens (Talvipuutarha) are at Hammarskjöldintie 1 & entry is free.

Moomin loves you

A friend gave us a family pass to Moomin World recently and when 5 euro tickets to Turku came on sale we decided to grab that train and have a weekend away.

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We stayed in Naantali, a seaside town just out of Turku and home to Moomin World.

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Naantali was looking very pretty this summer and we enjoyed eating by the water and wandering through the Old Town.

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As well as the wooden shops and cafes, there’s also a beautiful old church. There was a funeral on however and when we went to go in later it was closed.

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(I’m still not sure if these are nuns or women on their way to a fancy dress party).

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Moomin World itself is a short walk from the Old Town, over a bridge and housed on a small island.

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The Moomin family and friends are characters from books written by Tove Jansson and are much-loved in Finland and beyond.

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At Moomin World you’ll find all the characters from the books as well as the police station and various homes.

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We wandered through three stories of the Moomin family home, sitting on Moomin’s bed and peeking in their cupboards.

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If you’re thinking of visiting Naantali or Moomin World, you’ll want to plan your trip as both are only really open during the summer.

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But for Moomin fans it’s definitely worth a visit. There are various scenes recreated around the island with characters you can interact with.

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We are not that familiar with the stories yet to be honest but I’m sure we soon will be. After meeting and hugging him, Miko told me quietly, ‘Moomin loves me.’

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People Soup

On a beautiful sunny day recently a friend and I decided to take our boys to the Olympic Swimming Stadium. Upon arrival we found our idea was not terribly unique, as the queue snaked out the door.

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Once inside we had the choice of four pools – the main pool, a diving pool, a children’s pool & the wading pool.

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We opted for the wading pool, which meant we could watch the boys without being in the water the whole time. There’s also a playground and a water slide, which you pay a small fee to use.

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The diving pool was busy and an announcement was made over the loud speaker each time the highest platforms were opened for use.

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The pools were originally built for the 1940 Summer Olympics, which were cancelled due to the war.The building was completed in time for Helsinki to host the 1952 Summer Olympics and the pools are now open each year from May – September.
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I love the way the natural landscape has been kept, with rocks and trees providing places to lie and shelter.

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During the war the pools were used to store root vegetables and herring. Here’s hoping that sunny day wasn’t a red herring as we haven’t had such a warm day since.
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With up to 5000 people visiting on a good day however, it’s not food you’ll be finding but the phenomenon of a warm crowded swimming pool that I call people soup.

Helsinki Swimming Stadium  ( Uimastadion )

Come As You Are

With the sun hardly setting in Helsinki these days, we are taking every opportunity to enjoy dinner outdoors.

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Our favourite places Skiffer and Cafe Birgitta only open in summer and they are now in good company with the opening of Hernesaaren Ranta.

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Hernesareen Ranta (Hernesaari Beach) is located south-west of the city, in the redeveloping area of Hernesaari (Pea Island).

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Bus number 14 will take you almost to the door, but as always there’s also plenty of parking for bikes.

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The area is home to a range of eateries, including Piece & Love Pizza and Mexican Chalupa. There’s also a venelaituri (boat pier) for those arriving by boat.

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Once ashore there’s many areas to sit and you don’t all have to order food from the same place.

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Unfortunately, some food providers are still learning how to run food events efficiently. The night we visited, the Champagne Bar ran out of champagne and the sushi bar was hand-rolling sushi to order, meaning a 25-minute wait for food after a 20-minute wait to order.

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Luckily there’s another bar where you can grab a drink while you wait and there’s also a dance floor for those who stay late.

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These guys knew how to kill time, turning up for dinner in a boat equipped with a sauna and sofa up on top.

And we’ll be back. With the area measuring 2000m² and open all week from 10am-2am, there’s something for every man and his dog.

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Hernesaaren Ranta

It’s a bit hard to find – continue west from Cafe Birgitta, past the public sauna building site until you feel sure you must be lost. Hernesaaren Ranta will appear as if a mirage in the distance, just as you are about to turn back. 

 

 

 

To Stockholm by Sea

One of the best things about living in Helsinki is its proximity to the rest of Europe. While Finns say they feel fairly remote, for those of us facing a  26-hour flight home, anything less is a breeze.

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Photo: Marko Stampehl/AS Tallink Grupp

During the summer months you also have the option of visiting neighbouring countries by boat. By boat, I mean passenger ferries, built to accommodate you and 3000 of your favourite strangers.

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With my parents visiting we decided to do the ferry trip to Stockholm, which we’ve been told, pretty much makes us Finnish. We travelled on the Silja Serenade and were welcomed on board by Moomin, musicians and circus performers. The big promenade down the centre of the boat makes orientation really easy.

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As well as bars and restaurants, there’s a big play area for children. I sat in there for two hours while Miko played and recommend taking a book, as you need to stay in the area but not really watch your child the whole time. (Magazines in Finnish are provided).

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To travel, you pay one ticket price, that covers the fare and accommodation for all those sleeping in your cabin. A cabin with a window costs more, but with the Nordic summer sun visible for nearly 24 hours these days, you may not miss having one.

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One of the best things about the trip, that I hadn’t anticipated, was the beautiful views as we drew nearer to Stockholm.

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We had a bird’s eye view of the archipelago as we cruised slowly by, fascinated by the remotely set houses and saunas.

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Stockholm is a city set over 14 islands, connected by bridges. Once docked, we headed into Gamla Stan (Old Town), via bus.

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We passed by beautiful parks full of beautiful Swedish people, before reaching the Royal Palace.

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Gamla Stan is full of little streets to lose yourself in, with stores selling books, shoes, waffles and ice cream.

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We use the Foursquare app for recommendations on where to eat and were not disappointed with the lunch we had at Under Kastanjen.

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After an ice cream in the sun, we headed to the Nobel Museum, leaving Mum & Dad to tour through while we had a drink and people-watched in the Old Town Square.

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Later, on board the boat, we got a window seat and enjoyed drinks and the view, which once again was absolutely captivating. By the time we arrived back in Helsinki the next morning we agreed –  we all had a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

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Good to know:

  • Silja Line ferries dock a bit further out of town. Allow 20-30 mins for the bus into town, which is very easy to catch.
  • The currency of Sweden is the krona (SEK)
  • If you are a Club One member, take your card on board as you can earn points and get discounts
  • The duty free stores onboard have better prices than the cafes for things like chocolate
  • There are also big savings on Finnish souvenirs, like Moomin mugs (19€ on land, 13€ at sea)